Please! Stop Topping Crape Myrtles
I love crape myrtles. No flowering shrub that we grow rewards us so completely, yet requires so little care and attention. Then why must this barbaric chopping persist?
One year ago Saturday, I posted the following Garden Tip on my Facebook page. It reached more than 400,000 readers. It had 2,700 “Likes” and the same number of “Shares.” More than 700 people commented on it. Almost all were supportive, but a handful (who had probably already topped their plants) were irate.
I offer my post again for you here in the hopes that you and I can stomp out this crazy behavior.
From Facebook, January 7, 2016:
Garden Tip: (Warning! This is as harsh as any post you will ever see me make here.)
THIS IS JUST NOT ACCEPTABLE!
I have spent an entire career in Texas horticulture trying to get people to STOP TOPPING CRAPE MYTLES! I’ve seen progress in DFW, where many of us have been preaching this gospel. But in the rest of Texas and across the South, and still even in the Metroplex where I live, people are doing it.
I’m going to ramp up my rant. My previous 45 years of trying to be polite haven’t gotten the job done. THIS IS INSANE. There is simply no call for what many of you now call “crape murder.”
I have listened to seemingly every excuse in the world for this barbarism, from “My plant is too tall for the space that I have for it” to “It makes my plant flower better.” It’s all just so much hooey, and I hope you’ll forgive me if my eyes glaze over and my smile seems frozen. I’m thinking about something else. I am no longer tuned in to you.
Whacking the plants back like this does not change their genetics. They’re still going to try to grow just as tall. Topping won’t stop that. All topping will do is leave the plants looking gnarled and ugly. If you have a crape myrtle that’s too big for its spot, either move it – or remove it entirely. Don’t put it and yourself through the misery of topping your crape myrtle each year.
Relative to making crape myrtles bloom better, topping like you see here delays their first round of flowers by 6 to 8 weeks. That’s two months late in first bloom! And the heads they produce are as big as basketballs. The weak, supple stems can’t even support them. What good are the big flower heads if they’re bent to the ground? Plus, you’ll be losing one and even two rounds of blooms in that two-month delay to first bloom.
The first photo shows crape myrtles that have been completely beheaded. This photo is actually from several years ago, but it doesn’t matter, because they’ve already been whacked again for this year.
The other photo shows three crape myrtles, two of them topped before the crew went home for the day. It also shows you that once you top them, their form has been ruined forever.
Your only recourse if you suddenly realize the error of your ways (or if you move into a house where the former owner has been butchering his plants) is to cut the plants completely to the ground and retrain the sprouts that come back up again. It really works, and you can have a spectacular plant within 12 to 24 months in the process. There is no way to accomplish that, even with years of careful reshaping, if you try to work with a topped plant.
I love crape myrtles. I love what they bring to our landscapes at a time of the year when little else blooms. Sure they have a few problems. Powdery mildew on the older varieties, and scale and aphids. (For those issues, please see what we have on our Crape Myrtle Trails of McKinney website at http://crapemyrtletrails.org/pest-control/.) But all plants have shortcomings of one sort or another. It doesn’t mean we should destroy them.
And finally, I have one possible explanation of why crape myrtles get topped. “I saw the landscape crews doing this down the street, so I thought it was the right thing to do to my own.” That’s a “monkey-see, monkey-do” kind of mentality, and we all know that monkeys do a lot of crazy things that defy explanation.
Landscape management companies need to know better. They need to show the way. They need to say to their clients, “We just don’t do that to crape myrtles.” The fact that the client requests it doesn’t mean it has to be done. Surely, you can find something else for your crews to do at this off-season, now that they’re back on the job after the holidays.
Come on, Texas. We can do better! This makes us look completely uneducated.
Note: Several people asked, “How do you prune crape myrtles, then?” My follow-up answer was that you only remove damaged or rubbing branches. If you’re trying to train a shrubby crape myrtle into tree form, you would also remove extra trunks completely to the ground.